Wednesday, February 29, 2012

#61 -- A Tube

"The doctor mentioned that if it kept up, it would dissolve the esophagus altogether, and the organ would fall out of orbit, and without a stomach, I assume I would have died."

"Are you choking?"

"No. I can breathe just fine." He slapped me on the back and water fell out of my mouth, splattering onto the chain-link fence. "I'm not choking!" He hit me on the back again. I swore in my head but didn't want to waste any breath in case I was a liar. An air-bubble the size of a fist expanded in my throat. When it finally snapped, hard, air rushed out of my mouth, and this time, Alfredo sauce came up with it, and he doesn't know it, but I can feel the heavy linguine nearby, being lazy. "What the fuck, man? I told you that I'm not choking."

"Then what is it?"

"I can't swallow."

"But you can breathe?"

"I'm forming consecutive sentences, aren't I?"

"But you can't swallow? Why not?"

I rolled my eyes. "How the hell should I know?" I belched and it came up in the form of another single, thick bubble. We both froze at the sight of it. He started to laugh and an SUV drove by and honked, encouraging me to hang in there, man, it's still early in the night. I pinched the bubble forming against my teeth, then pressing harder until it finally popped. There was still a lump inside my chest made out of hardened air.

I paced, jumped up and down, feeling movement but no progress. "It's like I'm smuggling a diamond into the country in my esophagus. Shit, this sucks." 

"I thought you saw the doctor about this?"

"I did. They fixed it, this can still just happen randomly sometimes."

I started to sweat because I was embarrassed and nervous and hungry, mostly, I hadn't eaten since early that morning. After the twilight faded into night, the phantom sensation passed, I breathed, and knew it was gone and done, and I went back to dinner, asking for my friends' forgiveness and threatened their lives with death if they ever described this moment in detail.

"Something wrong?"

"Nope," I shook my head. "Not anymore. All good."

-- |  |  | --

"Is somebody going to drive you home?"

"I think so. Somebody's supposed to come pick me up. My mom or my dad." I signed in a few more spots. The pen was dying. "How long does this take?"

"Not long," the woman behind the glass answered. "Maybe thirty minutes."

"But I need a ride home?"

"Honey, they're going to put you under. You didn't know that?" I told her that I did not. "They put the tube down your throat. If they find something, they cut it out. It takes about thirty minutes, then you get to go home."

"Yeah, they said they found a thing at the top of my stomach when they did that x-ray swallow thing."

I woke up in a chair and in my hand was a tupperware container. It had a blob inside it. "Twice a day until they run out, take these," the doctor said. He put some meds in my empty hand. "And there shouldn't be any more after this one."

"Okay," I agreed through misted anesthesia. "But what caused it in the first place?"

"It doesn't matter."

-- |  | --

The lab tech took a miniature dixie cup from the metal sleeve beside the sink and after he had filled it with something that looked like white honey, he passed it to me. "Drink this."

"All of it?"

The cup wasn't totally full, I tested its consistency, tilting it side to side. It stained the sides of the cup like cooking oil. "All of it," he said.

"At once? Or slowly?" I only wanted to have to do this once.

He guided me over to a slab of wall that was different from the rest, turning me sideways so my shoulder was against it. "Like a mugshot," he said. The slab was fucking freezing.

"Don't I get some lead shielding or something?"

"Nah." He lowered the x-ray rig. "It's a longer shot than a standard x-ray but we need to see you in action so we can see where and if there's an obstruction." I leaned on the wall, pinching the waxy dixie cup as he set up the x-ray. "This is a minor test."

"I know."

"I'm going to be back there and hit the button and you'll drink the stuff at medium speed."

Somewhere, my skeleton drank thick yogurt at medium speed, and they saw it.

-- | --

"You're getting steamrolled. And I hate to see it happen to you."

Also, people that I didn't even know told me I looked like shit. My body shut down in ways that I thought were made up -- dramatized snapshots that were enlarged to emphasize emotional texture. People imagined these things into existence so they could sell books and earrings to teenagers, didn't they? No, they really did not. These things can really happen, and that disgusted me all the more. My hair began to fall out. I cut off the rest. I couldn't eat. I wanted to eat, my body would not let me, there was a physical / mental revulsion that I couldn't overcome. Naturally, I weakened, and pretty quickly. I stopped talking. I thought that it was all in my head, but then the stress of the situation had been so severe, I finally went to the hospital after three years, and learned that my rolling stomach acid had started to dissolve the base of my esophagus, and miniature, tumor-like lumps had begun to callous-up to keep the thing whole together. By then it had become hard to get much more than yogurt through the narrowing hole. They went in with a tube and saw what was happening. The doctor mentioned that if it had kept up, it would dissolve the esophagus altogether, and the organ would fall out of orbit, and without a stomach, I assume I would have died.

At that point though, my body had become such a wreck, that it had chosen to grow lumps in my stomach so it would make it harder for me to eat. 

Why would this happen to me? What instinctive trigger went off, my body choosing hardened polyps over normal digestion? I thought about why people could get so afraid that they'd puke, the situation becoming so dire that a human would animalistically vomit everywhere, just so they could be light enough and fast enough to get away from whatever short-term predator was quite literally about to eat them right then and there if they didn't escape.

I wasn't concerned. I wasn't concerned about any of it. The symptom had surpassed its origin. I just wanted it to go away.

I wasn't fast coming back. When I did, I came back different. My body healed somewhat and I began to function physically again. Soon, I could eat. The rest was taking longer. I had rust on my mind.

After a little more, I could breathe, and then a few years passed, and I was awake.

-- Alex Crumb
. . .follow the person on Twitter

Sunday, February 26, 2012

#60 -- WTF's 2011 Game Of The Year Awards

". . .is the 2011 Game of the Year, and it deserves a trillion-trillion words to be spoken, written, and shouted in its honor."

It's awards season! 

Naturally, the most prestigious, and most accurate, awards are always handed out last, and even though the other games sites and magazines (hah!) have distributed theirs for 2011, we took our sweet-ass damn time to figure out what the best games were this last year. Because we can. Because you deserve to know which contain the most artfully-crafted designs, hammered and sharpened into entertainment-pinnacles that spike your reality-hating hearts, and you realize you should never choose a jaded soul over chop-sockey optimism. This is basically the Oscars of videogames.

It's better than the Oscars of videogames.

Reigning 2010 Game Of The Year Champion:
-- Sin & Punishment: Star Successor --
It will be difficult for anything that came out in 2011 to beat out last year's Game of the Year, Sin & Punishment: Star Successor (S&P2), which is not only the Best Game On The Wii, but one of the only game on the Wii that could only exist on the Wii. The Wii was a stop-gap and it's been trying to disown its mediocrity and motion controls ever since the developers realized sword-fighting is fucking awesome and waving plastic at a TV is not sword-fighting. S&P2 is so smashy, so carbon-fiber, so willfully-illiterate, so Japanese, so small-minded and grandiose, it's an entire roast beef sandwich forced onto a small dinner role and you have to dislocate your jaw like a Burmese python just to take a bite out of it.

It had. . .
2 characters: Dude and Girl; Dude has direct-accuracy and Girl has auto-lock
2 types of shots: Manual and lock-on
2 types of power-attacks: Sword-slash and power-charge

And that's it. No power-ups or new weapons or abilities to acquire. You can't squeeze blood from a stone and you can't grind success out of S&P2 without dying a whole lotta times. Your reward for playing well is that you get to survive long enough to keep playing. It moved as fast as a hovercar escaping post-apocalyptic Route 66 and it never surrendered control for a moment -- you were always shooting, blasting, firing, slicing, exploding, rocketing, bashing, flying, and surviving. That was why it was the Game of the Year in 2010. We almost inserted a clause that the new GotY had to be better than the previous game of the year. That made things too messy though and this process was already fairly protracted. This is the WTF GotY's, not the end of an awkward Thanksgiving dinner.

We got a buzz on, let's just knock this thing out.

Other unique caveats have been worked into our selection process though. We chose to add these rules because they strengthen the games that we chose. 

First, when we go back over the best games of a year, it doesn't necessarily mean the game came out in that year. It just means that we played it in that year. It's even more commendable that a game from a past year can still compete with new games, speaking volumes of its quality. This was a rule initially created so we didn't have to talk about how technically Mass Effect 2 came out in 2010, but we didn't play it until it came out on the PS3 in January of 2011, but then just decided, "fuck it, we run the show here and not many quality, memorable games came out in 2011 anyway." Spoilers, Mass Effect 2 appears somewhere on the countdown. Also, this qualifier removes the nostalgia goggles from actually new games and we don't have to say, "shit, they don't make games like this anymore." You don't have to say that and we're very guilty of it (even in this very countdown we are, how about that?!). Those old games still exist. You can go back and play A Link to the Past if you want, and we encourage you to do so. It's $8 on the Wii and it's way better than the Zelda game released in 2011. . . .


Best Game You Only Need To Play Once:
-- Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception --
It's a crime that this game is a one-shot. A damn good one-shot, but it simply does not play well enough to warrant a revisit it for the gameplay. They were almost too diligent at times with their level-design, usually in order to serve the story, which wounded it as a videogame. The best parts are where the game removes itself from the registered design-norm. The tragedy is that it didn't go far enough. It wanted to tell a movie-like story, pushing its tech to mimic a cinematic vibe. It's a videogame though. You play it on your PlayStation 3 console. It should be laughing at cinema's inadequacies and presented a story that could not be told in a movie.

It wanted to be a combination of Lawrence of Arabia and Die Hard, but instead, we got Speed 2: Cruise Control.  

There's a part where you have to wander through a desert and it does some passage of time stuff, and then the villain voices-over with some quotes from T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" it is very cool. It was there to evoke the desert's expansiveness. It's over in about 10 minutes though. Some desert. This should take days. Literally, you should not be able to beat the level in one play session. We fucking dare a developer to transplant the misery of walking through a desert into a player. They won't.

Best Thing, Perhaps, That We Love To Hate On:
-- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim --
Below, we've transcribed an actual conversation that we've had with multiple friends, in person, via instant messenger, on the phone, or in any way humans communicate. It should be noted that these are not people that we would not label as active videogame-players.

Friend: "Hey, did you get Skyrim? I took an arrow to the knee!"

Response: "Bitch, please, we play Dark Souls."

Friend is no longer online.

A thing like Skyrim can't exist. It's too big, and so much time was put into making it big that there was no time to fill it with tangible things, and as a result, each thing, be it a quest or a sword, became as (in)significant and (un)important as the last. It is yet another sword. It is yet another quest. The "Main" quest was as brief and underwhelming as a swamp level in a JRPG, except it only lasted ten hours. Ah, but there's more in the world, right? Well, if people laud the game for having 90+ hours of content and they keep saying: "And we've barely scratched the surface!" then what have you been scratching at? What game gives you happiness, but also the qualifier that you've gone nowhere in 90 hours? What star-iron is this game made of that no amount of stomping on it will yield a scratch, hours later? That's a confused little game lacking focus right there. "It's so ambitious and expansive!" Its questing is a long shopping list. Its combat is a fly-swatting simulation. Remember how all sites started handing out freak-out positive scores to Skyrim and then everybody did an about-face and started posting apologist op-eds? Yeah, saw that coming.

"The dragon battles are epic!" You've been fighting dragons in videogames since 1985, how is this a selling point? "They can come at any moment!" Fantastic, you've invented random-battles (side note: No you have not.)."There's so much loot to collect. It makes my guy look cool." Then go buy a doll or adopt some fashion taste of your own, like, in real-life, man. Also, you play from a first-person view, you can't even see what you're wearing. "Third-person view is totally manageable this time." It still doesn't require any skill or technique to kill things.

The Game That Should Have Done Less:
-- Batman: Arkham City --
It's a fantastic fight engine, rad puzzles, logical story progression, reverence for the Batman mythos, and enjoyable locomotion. It's what Zelda should have become by now if Nintendo had balls. However, it treats the open world as an arcane menu-system to select activities from. The game was also surprisingly short. How can that be? We kept on planning on going off the beaten path when things got too tough at a boss fight, like you do when you realize you don't have enough missile tanks to properly confront Kraid. Rocksteady, go back to the Metroid-style, isolated environments like the first game, it served it infinitely better.

The Game That Makes Us Feel Like Children:
-- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword --
Stop assuming that your audience has the intelligence of the coma-participant, Nintendo. We have functioning eyes. We can't review Skyward Sword (but we tried). It isn't modern. It isn't old-school. It will be good today, and it will be good tomorrow, but it won't ever be great, and if we were three years old and had never played a single videogame before, we might think it was the greatest thing ever. This game is the enemy. While other people were out trying to figure out how to be tasteful and fun in 2011, Nintendo seems keen on just writing to a librarian in Oxford, England, demanding that they change the very word "fun" to something that is more agreeable with their own marketing department. Skyward Sword is a signpost pointing to what developers think we want and deciding what we are. If you feel like it, don't listen to us. Instead, go buy a Wii, and a copy of Skyward Sword, and forget that other videogames exist for 30 hours. That's the only way you'll be able to to decide if you're three years old or not.

Game With The Most Fucked-up Moment In 2011:
-- Shadows of the Damned --
Did that man with the harmonica welded to his mouth just rip out his own heart? Did he then eat his own heart? Did the heart give him powers? Did the powers just turn him into a demi-weregoat? Did the demi-weregoat just summon lightning that turned a statue into a horse with a cat's face? Did the demi-weregoat just eat the cat-horse's heart and grow ten stories tall and then eat the rest of the cat-horse? Did the ten-story tall demi-weregoat just piss darkness into a fountain? Did the grim reaper just come down and cut off the ten-story tall demi-weregoat's head?

No, none of those things happened to you because you're a sane person and because you didn't just fight the second boss in that game. If you know nothing about Shadows of the Damned, and you like any of Sam Raimi's horror movies, then we cannot recommend it enough, otherwise, eh, it's just a strange little third-person shooter.

Honorable Mention For Games That We Don't Want To Leave Unmentioned:
-- Rayman Origins -- 
-- Super Mario 3D Land --
-- Child of Eden --
-- Resistance 3 --
-- Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker --
-- Driver: San Francisco --
-- Orcs Must Die! --


The sequel to Banjo-Kazooie that we never got as kids. And that makes us angry. Fuck Rare. Fuck Banjo-Tooie. Fuck hours 5-87 of Donkey Kong 64. Fuck Nintendo for letting Rare fall into mediocrity. Fuck Nintendo in general. Fuck the people that won't let Free Radical make another TimeSplitters game. Fuck Halo, and fuck Call of Duty, and fuck Xbox Live, and fuck creative freedom, and fuck our always-was-there desire to shoot shit ever since we played Contra on NES. Fuck Activision for realizing all these things could be compounded into the most profitable mixture in videogames. Fuck the death of the platformer. Fuck false incentives created to lure players through shitty games instead of making moving from point A to point B fun like Sly did all those years ago. Fuck the assholes that don't get boners for cel-shaded games. Fuck those same assholes that'd rather simulate murder than simulate an endless Saturday morning cartoon marathon. Fuck Disney, make real animated movies again! Fuck Pixar, stop making us cry! Fuck Cars 2, what a terrible movie! Fuck Nintendo again for not giving their characters character or context or a reason for being. Fuck all the indie devs that'd rather make platformers based on their old college creative writing pieces like Braid or Limbo instead of making them out of screws, nails, and undercooked Stegosaurus steaks, like Super Meat Boy. Fuck the iPhone, the videogame equivalent of a Dan Brown book. Fuck us for not playing the Sly Cooper games all those years ago.

#8 -- inFamous 2('s ending) --
This is a twist on a modern morality-slog.The problem is that "morality" in games has become a stat, a number, that you collect, the same way that you used to collect stars in Mario 64. Stars unlocked doors so you could play more levels. Morality in games like inFamous 2 and Mass Effect 2 are commodities that unlock more missions, conversations, and "game." If you think that they're trying to be representative of who you are when you play the game, like some sort of real-time tarot card reading, you might notice a stench and some signage around you reading: "Your Butt Welcomes You: Scenic Colon Overlook On Your Left!" In almost all cases, you are not playing as yourself in these games with morality systems because good is far too angelic and evil is like a ladling up yourself another helping of slow-roasted puppy meat at the Hades Buffet. Face it, you're just playing one side or the other because you want to either shoot evil lightning or have a heal-ray -- don't protest, that is always how the powers are divided up at the end game. What inFamous 2 does to great effect is force you to the opposing polarity after you've been playing the other for the entire game as if it knew you were being bad because you wanted to see the bad ending, not because you were actually a bad person.

After hours of being a goody two-shoes, it forces you to (++ SPOILERS ++, we guess) team up with the "evil" girl and then commit suicide to save a city that hates you. It forces you to take the moral high-ground to the n'th degree. If you've been bad the whole game, you must team up with the icy, callous, slightly-xenophobic, but supposedly "good" girl, who forces you to kill your best friend to stay alive. In the world of moral choices, inFamous 2 went the extra mile by forcing you to go further than you could have expected and after feeling in control for the entire game, it takes control away when you need it most.

#7 -- Dark Souls --
In the true sequel to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Dark Souls is the first ever game derived from a discarded NES game-design document to be released in HD. This is a game that goes. You know the kind. No downtime. No load times. Not a moment to rest. No map, just your brain. It's like a 400 page book with only 8 chapters and you've lost your bookmark but if you lose focus, you have to go back to the beginning of the chapter and start reading it again.You learn Dark Souls. There is no hint system to call up and no way to escape destiny besides moving ahead to face destiny.

Skill can take you so far. After that, it's all will, man. You have to face your addiction to failure and you have to want to get better.

#6 -- StarCraft II('s multiplayer) --
The best competitive (re: non-N64) multiplayer game ever. StarCraft II is a football game if you controlled every muscle, thought, and reflex of all eleven players on the field simultaneously. Also, your team, nay, your entire franchise is reset after every match, and corporate espionage and off-season trades are all part of your ongoing strategy inside of one game of StarCraft II. When you're doing it right, you should be forgetting that you're playing. This is another game that has changed so dramatically in the year since its release that we can unerringly justify it being listed here. StarCraft II, shit, Blizzard games in general, are becoming not just games, but social platforms. There is just the right balance of educated guess work and luck, coupled with total precision and game-knowledge, creating the best digital one-on-one mind-game to date. It's exciting to watch how it's played in one single game and it's even more exciting to watch how it's played in one single year.

Premium motor-oil for a dying genre. It makes Grand Theft Auto IV look like a corpse. It won't elicit any of the big words from game reviewers like visceral, immersive, meticulous, or revelatory. It isn't polished, refreshing, or innovative -- it simply wants to be drip fun into your veins, uncut. It's an antidote to the open-world tedium. Missions are handed out over your phone, limiting the backtracking through vacant landscapes that plagued games like Jak II or Red Dead Redemption (both exquisitely-crafted games in their own rights). Running and shooting is exactly what you want it to be: running and shooting, not put-the-dot-on-the-head. The dialog is funny, the story is self-deprecating, and as we said in our review, it's a strong feminist statement if you play as a woman. It does what it does and it has no flaws when it does them.

#4 -- (the first half of) Deus Ex: Human Revolution --
This game did five things well and then did those five things five times in a row. It's a late CD-Rom era computer game thrown in hyper-sleep for about a decade. It was then exhumed, given a texture package, and had the last third of its content excised. Yes, it ends abruptly and the story forgets to exist during the second half. However, it's first half by itself is superior to nearly everything else we played this year. You creep, manipulate, experiment, explore, and then go loud if you must, because that's your last choice. Eventually though, it becomes too much of a meta-game that irks you if you come across a bot you can't destroy or a safe you can't hack. You become obsessed with maxing out your stats, and that wasn't the point of the game at first because it was richer and purer, and that's where things turn. The first half of the game alone is still the fourth-best game of 2011 though.

#3 -- Mass Effect 2 --
The game that made us afraid for it to finish. The game that made us sure that everything is in place before confronting our immortal enemy at the center of a supermassive black hole. It instilled the compulsion to make sure that everybody gets out alive. To get out alive, you must grow stronger. To grow stronger, you must explore the galaxy. To explore the galaxy together, your crew must trust you with their secrets. Ergo, the best assurance that you can give yourself that your friends will survive is if they are your friends. To assure this, you must ply the stars of the Milky Way. You must learn alien cultures. You must negotiate when you can and know when the time for emotionless diplomacy is over. There is a tool for every task and you will need all of them -- weapons, friends, wisdom, focus, and emotion, to get everybody, including yourself, out alive. In order to survive, you are asked to find the strength to count your blessings before going to war.

#2 -- Portal 2('s writing) --
The way Portal 2 plays is inferior to the way that Portal played. Portal was about serendipitously discovering how smart you are and how much smarter the people that made the game must be than you. Comparing Portal and Portal 2 is like arguing over Alien and Aliens -- both are unequivocally creative and beautiful for different reasons, and you could argue preference for either, but what you won't argue is that one is good and the other is bad. True, Portal 2 had the speedy-gel and the bouncy-gel and fun co-op levels, and yet all of that falls by the wayside when you realize that it has some of the keenest, blackest, most chaotic, and most hilarious writing you'll find on this side of sanity. It has, what, four speaking-roles? Wheatley, GLADOS, Cave Johnson, and we'll even count the Turret. And you, Chell, the mute, all combine to build the best ensemble one-act play ever to coalesce in a videogame. You'll play the game for the puzzles, but you'll want to finish the game so you can listen to the Personality Cores shout at one another. You'll know what we mean when you get there. It's the writing in Portal 2 that will be immortalized for years to come.

-- Bulletstorm --  
2011 Game of the Year
Bulletstorm is the 2011 Game of the Year, and it deserves a trillion-trillion words to be spoken, written, and shouted in its honor. We want to go to the bar and get shit-housed on grog and go up to random patrons and explain to them just what exactly a Bullet Storm really is! See, Bulletstorm is sorta like a 2D Mario game with the B-button taped down, but you're also always fireball. Bulletstorm is like having three dicks. If you've ever been drunk on a pontoon-boat, and you are American, then you've been tempted to experiment with pistols and flare guns on a tropical-sticky afternoon, and Bulletstorm combines these temptations into one weapon. Bulletstorm was probably first designed for SNES with a Game Genie on, and then remade wholesale for the PS3, all within one development cycle, and it shows, man, it shows. Women should not look directly at Bulletstorm, it may cause them momentary discomfort, followed by nausea, followed by shortness of breath, followed by a complete slough of her skin, wherein she shall be born again and receive total consciousness. Men should give up trying to write poety; Bulletstorm exists. There are special whistles that can hit octaves usually reserved for canines -- Bulletstorm's weapons hit octaves usually reserved for over-sized coal-mining equipment. Bulletstorm will give sheep Post-Traumatic Joy Disorder. Bulletstorm will one day be cited as the inspiration for those famous words uttered by the first human to walk on Mars: "Continue to follow me, and I will kill your dick!" That human will be the baddest woman ever to strap on a space suite, by the way. 

Don't experience Bulletstorm under the influence of illicit substances -- it will in fact turn your urine to soft-boiled egg-yolk. Bulletstorm was conceived during sex on, like, a really nice spiral staircase. Shaving a sedated polar bear cub with a straight razor requires speed and precision, and Bulletstorm hands you a katana blade, demanding that you have the exact same speed and precision when negotiating with that sedated polar bear cub's momma. Wrapping an explosive bola around a mutated Australian-biker and kicking him so hard he disobeys Chrono-Law is Bulletstorm reminding you why flipping tennis balls to yourself and smacking them with a metal baseball bat into your neighbor's above-ground pool was the best date you've ever been on. It's a game that hates other games while embracing modernity and does meta-gaming so tastefully.

In fact, Bulletstorm also won FOURTEEN other honors from us in addition to being the 2011 GotY. Check them all out, we've listed them here:
  • The Funniest Game since Psychonauts
  • The Most Excited To Ruthlessly / Violently Dismantle Enemies since 4 | Resident Evil
  • The Best Housecat Playing-With-A-Dead-Mouse simulation since Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.
  • Best Space Pirates since Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
  • Finest Shotgun since Doom 3.
  • Funnest Movement In A Shooter since Vanquish.
  • Best Female Sidekick Since Fucking Ever.
  • Most Gruesome Use Of A Cactus since Final Fantasy VIII.
  • Greatest "It Penetrates All The Enemies In A Line" Gun since Perfect Dark.
  • The Special Bayonetta Casual, Repeated "Fuck-Yeah" Award goes to Bulletstorm's plasma leash, which lets the player reel in, kick out, and inflect an area-of-effect juggle-attack onto enemies.
  • The Valkyria Chronicles Guaranteed Multiple-Orgasm Award for fastest "Start New Game" after watching the credits, 'cuz the first go-around was so goooooood for us.
  • Stickiest Sticky Grenade since Halo 2.
  • Killingest Kill 'Em All moment since Jet Force Gemini.
  • Best Time-Attack Mode since Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2.
How did we do? You can point out some factual inaccuracies or try to persuade us otherwise. We might listen.

Recommended related reading:
[F-Zero GX | * * *] by Doberman
[ExciteTruck | * * * *] by Ghost Little
[Final Fantasy IX | * * * *] by Ghost Little

-- Ghost Little and Doberman
on Twitter | @GhostLittle_WTF

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

#59 -- 'Seinfeld' Recap (Season 3, Episode 6): The Parking Garage

"I've decided what Seinfeld is about when it isn't about nothing: failed vengeance. Repeating that you (or somebody) ought to do something about these little injustices. Then doing nothing."

Nice, another Larry David episode. As the main executive producer and the head writer, the guy somehow manages to weave neuroses and nothingness into high-comedy, this time, the quartet's mundanity revolves around losing their car in a parking garage in New Jersey after Kramer wants to buy a cheap air conditioner. Simple and real, but also a premise waiting for the characters' exacerbation with reality to implode, Jerry even remarking in the very beginning that people shouldn't be spending their Saturdays doing things like this, that "real people are off at parties and having picnics and making out on blankets!"

Bad things will invariably happen to the gang, even as they try to go about their pointless lives, which is what makes the show stupidly relatable. It felt like an improv premise:

Setting: Parking garage
Jerry: Has to pee
George: Has to meet his parents in the city for their anniversary
Elaine: Has goldfish in a plastic bag that will die if they aren't put in a tank
Kramer: Is carrying the air conditioner, and is a terrible influence on Jerry and George


Oh, also the improv session has to last for 30 sustained minutes of bitter, slice-of-life cruelty. Keep that up for half an hour. I believe that the characters themselves are decent, functioning members of society that might be a little desperate, but well-meaning. George wants to meet up with his parents -- mostly just to avoid their scorn -- and Elaine wants to save her goldfish. As time goes by and they hunt for their car, musing on their issues and general dissatisfaction, it seems that the world seems to kind of hate them, or worse, it's indifferent to their suffering (the world "nothings" them). No passersby will help them look for their car, even as Elaine's fish start to die. George tries to intervene when a mother hits her son, only to have the boy call him ugly.

"Sure, that's what you think!"

"That's what I know!" is the boy's simple comeback.

Frustration seems to be a continual theme running through the series, that no matter what we do, we're constantly on the receiving end of misfortune, even when we try to do something as regular as buying an air conditioner with friends on a Saturday, and when the characters try to circumvent the rules, partially in the name of evening the playing field -- and usually at Kramer's poor advice -- everything backfires.

Jerry weighed his options, and really needing to pee, snuck behind a car to go after Kramer's encouragement -- and then was instantly arrested by a parking garage cop. Waiting for the cop to write up his citation, he tries with zero success to weasel out of it, borrowing some of George's story about having to meet up with his parents, and then also weaving in a brutal lie about his father having been in a Red Chinese prison for the last twelve years. Jerry does nothing halfway, especially lying. And why not? 

If you're going to get a fine for public urination, have no shame as you claw for excuses. Well played, Jerome.

It took about two minutes for George to get arrested for the same crime, naturally. Grumbling about their misfortune and finding their way back to the garage area after being ticketed, there's a hilarious moment where George sees a double-parked Mercedes. Now, even though Seinfeld is a self-admitted show about nothing, its banality so basic that we all can identify with it, it's also about wishing we could do something. George says he wants to spit on the double-parked Mercedes.

"I'd like to see that," is Jerry's response.

I've decided what Seinfeld is about when it isn't about nothing: failed vengeance. Repeating that you (or somebody) ought to do something about these little injustices. Then doing nothing.

The owner of the Benz arrives just as George is about to spit and George turns to a pillar of salt, groveling and complementing the guy on his car.

They do eventually find the car after a run-in with a Scientologist, a throwaway gag that needs no elaboration, but Kramer is separated from the rest, and he has the keys. When he finally arrives, the fish are dead, George is already an hour and a half late to meet his parents, and the car doesn't start. What's great about the show is that it never really becomes too outrageous. Even here in the third season, it's grounded, playing up the characters' misfortune as comedy. Their funniest lines are them spitting venom at the world, and not at each other, and they always remain supportive of one another's niggling discontent with society, exhaustive and minute as the issues might be. They want to get back at the world for the boringness they're stuck with and the excitement they assume is always happening off-camera. A vast majority of the show's action takes place in the dialog, usually failed planning, or off-screen entirely. In "The Chinese Restaurant," George's girlfriend is referenced and described in more humorous detail than what could ever be put on camera. In "The Pen," Jerry returns to his parents' house with burst capillaries, explaining his SCUBA diving accident instead of showing him struggle in the water, which is what a normal show might do. Lastly, in "The Dog," the dog Jerry is babysitting is never shown on camera, leaving us to imagine just how awful it is.

It's the total opposite of the "show, don't tell" rule, but it also emphasizes the comedy -- encouraging us that fun stuff is going on without us, yes, but also that our own imaginations are better than anything on TV.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

#58 -- "Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty" Reviewed | * * *

BY THE WAY: An updated version of this review, and all of our other reviews, can be found on our new official site: No ads, no Google bullshit, just content. [Metal Gear Solid 2 Review]

"The illusion of control via the illusion of simulation."

Before there was cleverness in videogames, there was cruelty. Metal Gear Solid 2 is a game made by Hideo Kojima, a man that doesn't like you. He doesn't you, he doesn't like his fans, he doesn't like making Metal Gear games over and over. He tried to quit a bunch of times, but then Japanese people rioted. He probably wanted to just produce games instead of directing, throw some good ideas at hungry developers so they could make things like Zone of the Enders (* * out of 4) or Castlevania: Lords of Shadow (* * * out of 4). He's an abstract and an "ideas man." He's too resentful to expect the player to understand his message when he speaks his mind within the context of a game. Kojima likes messing with people, offering a co-worker a handful of M&M's, and then laughing at them when they bit down on what were actually painted pebbles that he'd stayed up after lights-out to prepare. His is a character with no motivation -- he just does.

Whereas modern games actually plan on you discovering their gimmicks and secrets, probably at a designed-upon moment wherein you realize that this game is oh-so intelligent with its outlandish design, MGS2 is more of a drifter who is wise in his esoterica, burning down the Starbucks in every town he passes through. This game does not like chocolate chip cookies. This game is punk rock disguised as a Michael Bay movie. It's about an individual's overwrought sense of consumerist entitlement as much as it's about nuclear war -- and this is a videogame from 2001 that we're talking about. People have called it post-modern, but I think that's too broad of a definition. The original Metal Gear Solid on PS1 was already post-modern, which would make MGS2 a self-deconstruction, given its pronounced and purposeful similarity to its predecessor. It comes from a legacy and it knows it's famous. The original Metal Gear Solid made people sit up straight in their chairs in awe that a game could be about conspiracies and nuclear proliferation and real fuckin' guns firing real fuckin' bullets, all while still undoubtedly being a videogame in the same way that The Legend of Zelda was a videogame.

Kojima himself really did design a vast majority of MGS (source: The Game's Ending Credits), programming the enemy pathing, scripting boss patterns, and still writing and direction the abundant story. It was his. He had made this videogame and people played it, and they loved it madly. He had made so many people into videogame fans. Then he wondered if that was a good thing. Maybe he wondered if he'd been too clever, maybe he wondered if he hadn't been clever enough, but in the end, somebody had done a bad thing with MGS, simulating a one-man army sneaking into an Alaskan military base to thwart terrorists that were threatening innocents with a weapon as expansive and complex as nukes. The content was too serious for a media format like a videogame. It broke the fourth wall and established the player-character as an actual person, putting who was in control -- the player, the designer, or the character -- into question. Control and character would become major themes in MGS2. The videogame was becoming a squirmy art-form right before his eyes, and the battle-lines hadn't been drawn yet. Kojima wondered if people actually understood what they were interfacing with. He wondered if they could grasp the gravitas of such intricate, murderous role-playing.

The game was a success. It, along with Final Fantasy VII, helped establish the PS1's front-line. So how does an ego-maniacal idiot-savant like Kojima follow that up? How does he follow up Psycho Mantis? How does he follow up Revolver Ocelot's torture machine? How does he follow up Decoy Octopus, a boss hidden so deftly in his game that not everybody realized they fought and killed him during the first twenty minutes? How does one top that act? By doing the most punk rock thing imaginable. By nose-diving into his sophomore slump on purpose. By knowing his audience's expectations and doing almost the exact opposite. He knew he had one of the biggest audiences imaginable and that most everybody that would be buying MGS2 would have played, owned, or maybe even beaten MGS, and they were expecting big things for the sequel on the powerhouse PS2. Seriously, in 2000, a lot of people looked at the Dreamcast, and then looked at the preview build of MGS2, and instantly, a choir of angels descended from heaven to administer them God-sanctioned laser-eye surgery. It was no contest. Whatever was under the PS2's hood was lookin' pretty, pretty, pretty good, and all those kids suddenly recalled the rumors they'd heard from their friends with PS1's about how chocolate pudding-fantastic MGS was, which was that game with the robot ninja and nikita missiles that you could steer yourself.

PlayStation 2 it was. Sorry, Dreamcast. And the world waited with baited breath for the next generation.

Then 9/11 happened. It shouldn't be underestimated how much the real-life terrorist attacks soured people's feelings towards MGS2, a game about, hey, would ya know it, terrorists in New York. Or even worse, we were sure there were terrorists in the game, but we weren't sure what the game was actually about. It was murky as hell on purpose, all to make a statement about informational deception. MGS2 is not a cheerful game. It purposefully begins wholesome and familiar enough, barely informing you on how to operate old, familiar, Solid Snake, and it's business as usual, but it slowly drills down into the misery of modern American culture and how the government has been lying to us for decades. Yes, it's as jarring and hackneyed as that sentence. It had a labyrinthine plot laced with gray-shaded philosophical babble. Kojima always intended for the game to insult the player and nobody was in any mood to face an ironic videogame in October, 2001, especially when they were expecting Real American Hero Solid Snake to be kickin' bitches and slappin' robots.

Ah, yes, the Raiden twist. You are Raiden when you play MGS2, even during the parts where you control Snake during the initial Tanker-sequence that begins the game. You are Raiden. All of us are Raiden. Everybody that played MGS was Raiden and everybody that plays videogames is Raiden, at least as far as Kojima is concerned. And Raiden is not a very cool guy.

Snake is a cool guy. He prevented nuclear holocaust. He has a gruff voice and is named after a Kurt Russell character. He smokes. Smoking is "a move" that you can do when playing as Solid Snake. Raiden is none of those things. Raiden is an ignorant and androgynous bitch-whipped sucker. He limps through a a kabuki-theater plot surrounded by characters that act with as much enthusiasm as an underpaid babysitter wielding a Power Rangers action figure in one hand and a AT&T family-plan smartphone in the other.

And it's all on purpose. This is exactly what Kojima meant to happen. He saw his fanbase's desire to play as the iconic hero Snake and he saw an opportunity to twist it into a medium-defining moment. This is second-person storytelling. Remember earlier when I was talking about who was really in control, the player, the designer, or the character? No other storytelling form can do this.

It's simple. People use videogames as escapism, to simulate being a person greater and braver than ourselves. So what did Kojima do? He made a game where you get to play as a character trying to inhabit that role, but can't! You get to do it briefly, dabbling in the story's intrigue. You get to observe Solid Snake do his thang on occasion. But no, that stuff's going on outside of your control. When you take control of Raiden, you are talked through how things work by a patient military man, explaining your mission, how to walk, how to push a button, how to call your girlfriend on the phone, and this is all after you've infiltrated an US Marines' tanker not twenty minutes earlier. As Raiden, you are relegated to the back seat to make you learn that you are still playing a game, and when you're playing a game, you don't have the control you think you do. It's a harsh lesson. You, as Raiden, have to run through a plot of what is an admitted, deliberate simulation of the original Metal Gear Solid, which, in and of itself, was already a simulation of a Real American Hero stopping a terrorist attack. The illusion of control via the illusion of simulation. Only a videogame can do that. It attacks you for wanting to be guided through a simulation that you really have no control over, or even understand the reason for. And why, of all things, would you want to simulate this? What kind of sick psycho are you, choosing a narrow, digital, murder simulation? The story in MGS2 is a sad one. It's about us growing up, losing control, thinking we're doing good things, but we're puppets. We have no idea who to trust or who to depend on.

Kojima's stance on a sequel to MGS was: "Oh, what, you want another MGS game? Fuck you, you don't want another MGS game, and I'm gonna show you why. Because you, player, are a tool. A tool for me to manipulate. Defy me if you dare."

You (Raiden) trust your support characters blindly. You (Raiden) have your girlfriend leaning on your shoulder, giving vapid advice. You (Raiden) are a slave to a machine more complex than you could ever realize. You (Raiden) only become interesting when you become unlikable. Early on, Raiden encounters a man that looks and sounds exactly like Solid Snake -- who is supposedly dead, this man even admits it. Colonel Campbell, the voice in Raiden's ear, tells you not to trust this man that looks like Snake. But you know better. You've already identified with Snake. You trust Snake above all else. Immediately, you're put at unease, because you want to trust Campbell, but you know you should trust Snake, and that's when you first start to lose control of what you're doing. When Raiden comments that what's going on around him is a lot like The Shadow Moses incident of the first game, the supporting voices in his ear tell him not to worry about that, that, "This isn't a simulation, Raiden. It's real life," that's Kojima telling the player to be unsatisfied by this bullshit. The fact that the plot weaves Snake's presence, unaccounted variables that your supporting CO can't account for, is brilliant. Remember how Raiden is a doofy character with terrible dialog at first, and only the unaccounted variable characters like Snake, Olga, and Otacon, have decently-written parts and speak like actual people? That's because they exist outside of videogame conventions, and are free people, while Raiden (You) is just playing a part, doing as you're told. When it's revealed that Campbell was just an AI voice in your ear all along, and he tells you to stop playing the game, but you refuse, because fuck you, Old Man, that's you rising to Kojima's challenge to not obey authority, especially not a faceless game-designer. Once you've done this, you're ready to play the real game -- that game would exist elsewhere someday, and if Metal Gear Solid 3 (* * * * out of 4) had turned out to be terrible, then MGS2's joke wouldn't have worked, because with MGS3, Kojima proved that he could make a damn-fine game if he needed to.

It's the most important troll-job in videogame history. Kojima proved that he'd rather spend years of his life and millions of somebody else's dollars to tell a passive-aggressive joke about the state of a niche sector of the entertainment industry than let you play a cohesive videogame sequel to one of the most-revered games of all time. He designed a game that was deliberately as close to its predecessor as possible, but also deliberately not as good -- all to satisfy his own ego. It makes statements about sequels (they're shit), technological advancement (it's dangerous), entitlement (you aren't), and really new, interesting ideas (we're out of them, and we have been for a while).

MGS2 was a step towards the craziness that would eventually manifest in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, which is a towering monument to digital arts and crafts. The only problem with MGS2 is that it's not a very good game to actually play. Its design was clunky when it was released and it's aged horribly ten years later. The radar system is broken, there's no camera control, aiming is like digging yourself out of a snowbank with a bread knife, and the hand-to-hand combat is straight out of the 90's. It's important to note that that is not part of Kojima's joke. Rarely is a game so flawlessly built that it's actually about something, and still is fun to play.

The Nostalgianauts recommendation:
Revisit this game if it left a bad taste in your mouth all those years ago. A decade later, it's eerily prophetic, and even funny how much other games like Braid (* * * * out of 4) and Bioshock are playing catch-up with statements about player control (with some credit to System Shock 2, it's spiritual predecessor, but still). It sparked something philosophical in me when I first played it, even if I didn't quite understand why.

Nostalgianauts Rating: Was [WEIRD], Now [GREAT]!

* * *
(out of 4)

Recommended related reading:
[The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask | * * * ½] by Ghost Little
[ExciteTruck | * * * *] by Ghost Little
[Final Fantasy IX | * * * *] by Ghost Little

-- Alex Crumb
on Twitter | @GhostLittle_WTF

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

#57 -- Nostalgianauts

"How were our tastes and tendencies forever altered because we stayed up all night watching Alfred Hitchcock or Ridley Scott movies (they. . . somebody. . . something is coming to get me!)?"


Transfixed by Clint Eastwood's cruelly-effective halftime speech during the Super Bowl, I made a mental note: the American spirit is built upon self-obsession. Even if it doesn't look like we're the best, we still invariably believe that we are -- that we'll always get back up if we're knocked down. That logic is sound, at least from my American-reared point of view. Now is not the time to be questioning my public school education though. These were high-concept thoughts hammered into young minds that can come out gnarled if they are not directed precipitously in adulthood. National pride is an extension of self-identity, a very particular layer, in fact, of self-identity. We really shouldn't have to use it very often, and yet it's become more common in my adult life. Self-identification is what makes or breaks a person's confidence. Look, there are kinds of people that will buy very expensive underwear -- it does the job as well as any cheaper pair of boxers, but the person buying it isn't buying an article of clothing. That guy is buying stock in himself. He's buying +5 points into self-confidence. 

Yes, Americana is kind of like buying a pair of boxers. America's patriotism and collective consciousness is built on a semi-modern mythology. We originally left England so we could practice our own fanatically-conservative religion, then 100 or so years later, the country's founding principles of freedom and humane-equality were transcribed by a collective of wealthy, atheistic slave-holders. This freedom and fighting for what you want has become the can-do confidence-pill that Americans swallow at a young age, and the mythology has been crafted into a reverent thing. At least for some. Some people detest it. That's just silly. All cultures look to history for relief from the present -- for inspiration and for values that might have been lost in modernity. You can go listen to Don Draper's speech about nostalgia, it's a great explanation about how stupid, personal memories make us who we are.

What I want to do is examine our own mythology. Not America's, necessarily, but that will probably come up. No, I want to travel back to understand these nostalgic crutches that people lean on when they can't manage to stand straight in the present. And so, the Nostalgianauts feature on What's That From? is born!

Maybe we'll be right -- that our gleeful devotion to something from long ago is merited. Does some tradition that is followed make sense? Does it need to continue? Do the books from our childhood hold up? What about favorite foods? Movies? Sports? Candle-pin bowling? Running barefoot in the snow? Can an item no longer be valuable to us but still clearly to be valuable to somebody younger?

How did our experiences when we were young influence us as adults? How were our tastes and tendencies forever altered because we stayed up all night watching Alfred Hitchcock or Ridley Scott movies (they. . . somebody. . . something is coming to get me!)?

When Conan O'Brien went off the air on the Tonight Show after 10 months, he said that he had achieved his dream, and he demanded that nobody should be jaded about the turn of events. It's strong message coming from a silly man, but it's wholly relevant, because I grew up watching Conan, sometimes without realizing it as he worked as a writer and producer on Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons before he became a talk show host. I don't ever want to assume the worst, which is why I want to approach Nostalgianauts with enthusiasm to learn why people love certain things from their lives as much as they do. People have very affectionate attachments to nostalgic items and moments -- I just want to understand these attachments and how they make the person into who they are today.

I suppose this will begin as a feature on What's That From? but maybe it'll evolve into a podcast, and something beyond. Who knows? We just have to keep asking questions.

Clint Eastwood (or the ad's writers, rather) was right, in a way that only a libertarian cowboy movie star that barely looks like he's acted a day in his life can. People are afraid and don't understand one another and that's why we lash out and lay blame. This is a big damn country and an even bigger damn world.

-- Alex Crumb
. . .follow the person on Twitter

Recommended related reading:
[The 10 Types Of Bombast In Storytelling] by Ghost Little and Doberman